How Wild Is Too Wild?

In my last post, I mused about whether research on fractal pattern preferences could be helpful in the design of calm, contemplative garden spaces. Studies suggest that people like looking at fractal patterns in nature and find their complexity surprisingly restful.

Lesson learned: don’t make simple landscapes too simple.

But the research also suggests that while we like complex fractal patterns, we don’t want them to be overly complex. If we’re in an environment where the patterns get too elaborate, we become uneasy.  (Apparently, the Navy found this out the hard way: a room with intricate patterns in the wallpaper, carpet and furniture literally made people — presumably strong-stomached sailors — feel sick.)

All of which has me wondering whether the fractal patterns in some designed landscapes might unintentionally unsettle the very people they are meant to please. I’m a huge supporter of the movement toward a more relaxed and naturalistic style of planting. But some of the wilder planting schemes I’ve seen look a whole lot like the kinds of fractal patterns that are associated with viewer unease.

And perhaps the ability to clearly see fractal patterns is part of the reason why certain naturalistic plantings are so successful. I’m thinking, for instance, of the wonderful moments in Piet Oudolf’s designs where the fractal blossoms and seed heads of massed perennials are silhouetted against a gauzy sea of grasses or an evergreen hedge. Although the effect is very relaxed and natural looking, the emphasized fractal patterns really capture the eye and help the viewer “read” the landscape.

Hummelo

As for me, I’m now noodling how to find the “sweet spot” of fractal patterns in my own garden. Given that my personal gardening style tends more toward Managed Chaos than Neat and Tidy, the challenge for me is not how to include more patterns, but rather how to highlight the strongest ones to enhance the garden’s overall legibility.

Since we’re a ways away from planting season, my efforts so far have concentrated on editing the dead or dying plant debris I would otherwise leave to its own devices until spring. It was surprisingly rewarding, for example, to clear away the clutter of dead annuals to emphasize the bold outline of faded sedum blossoms against some dried grasses and the sword-like leaves of a variegated yucca.

And although our recent blizzard presumably has reduced everything to mush (I’ll find out once the snow finally melts!), I certainly enjoyed the fractal drama while it lasted.

Dried Sedum, Yucca and Grasses


photo credit: Piet Oudolf Garden: Grass Days 2009 via photopin (license)

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